Is it just me, or is everyone still as clueless about the Chase as we were back in February? Nearly every pre-Chase prediction has been thrown out the window and stat sheets have been tossed in the bonfire. Jimmie Johnson has gone from Chase favorite, to championship doubtful, back to title contender in the matter of about a month, and that’s not to mention several others who have had similar rollercoaster seasons.
However, though we still don’t yet have a clear idea of who the champion will be, we can still give you an idea of who to keep an eye on in the remaining six races of the season.
Let’s start off with the sport’s most recent winner.
*Jimmie Johnson* – You can’t fault people for saying Johnson was out of it after only two races. It had less to do with his finishes and his points position, and more to do with his overall performance. When Johnson had failed to perform at championship level two races into the Chase — which has been more than enough time for him to charge to the front in the past — there was no reason to think he was going to turn things around so quickly in the next eight races.
Except we forgot one thing: He does that every year. The only difference was a new track in the Chase, with the addition of Chicago at the beginning of NASCAR’s 10-race playoff system. Add that new element to the playing table, plus the fact that Johnson has never been very strong at Loudon, and all of a sudden his slow start makes sense. A return to Dover and Kansas was a return to normalcy, and both tracks are always very good for Johnson.
So now that we’ve all eaten our words and Johnson is right back at the top of the board, is it safe to start talking about a sixth title? Yes, but if I may ask one favor, please abstain from the “six-pack” comments. That phrase is going to give Lowe’s way too many ideas about possible commercials, and they don’t have anything to do with alcohol.
Otherwise, readers, your guess for the champion is as good as mine.
*Kasey Kahne* – When Kahne announced he was going to spend one year at Red Bull Racing before moving to Hendrick Motorsports, I couldn’t help but think that was a mistake. An organization isn’t going to put their resources into a car and team that won’t exist the next season, and they had already struggled enough as it was.
But while both Kahne and teammate Brian Vickers have struggled through a majority of the season, recently Kahne’s performance has taken a turn for the better. Beginning with a pole position back in Atlanta, RBR has seemingly found some speed underneath the hood of those Toyotas, as Kahne has finished in the top 5 the last two weeks. He even put some pressure on leader Johnson as the laps wound down at Kansas Speedway last weekend.
This recent trend of competitiveness on the track may spell good things for the team, as they are still actively seeking investors in order to continue racing into 2012. Even Vickers has shown some strength recently, and maybe some additional funding flowing into the cars could turn these teams from midpack runners into consistent threats for the top 10. If they can keep it up through the end of the season, that just might be the case.
*Honorable Mention:* *Brad Keselowski* has finished inside the top 5 in three of the last four weeks, including a third-place run at Kansas. Unlike Denny Hamlin, Keselowski has taken advantage of his “wild card” spot and made the most of it, currently hanging onto fourth in points, 11 spots out of the lead.
*Clint Bowyer* – Fresh off the heels of the _official_ announcement of what everyone already knew, Bowyer entered the weekend at his home track with an eye on the future … which isn’t always a good place to be. Lame duck drivers aren’t well known for doing well in the final few races with their team, so Bowyer should be no exception, right?
Not so fast. Bowyer has been inside the top 10 in three of the last four races even though his team has known he is leaving for weeks, and he finished seventh just two days after announcing his move to Michael Waltrip Racing in 2012.
With that said, I can’t help but feel Bowyer got the shaft in this year’s Chase field. Though the No. 33 team struggled around the time the Chase field was set, they’d have been more competitive than a few others who just managed to slide their way in or earned their spot by virtue of a wild card, like Hamlin. In fact, Hamlin has even admitted that they are only focused on testing for next year. Sounds like a waste of a Chase spot, right?
However, I’m not faulting NASCAR’s system. In this sport, if you can’t compete and be successful with the system you’re given, you don’t deserve the credit for it. I think this was a missed opportunity for Bowyer and his team to finish out their relationship on a strong point with a spot at the season-ending banquet. However, they can still cap off 2011 with some strong finishes, and right now they are doing just that.
*Ryan Truex* – Nationwide Series development driver Truex has competed in half of the races this season including the last five — and he’s done better than several full-time drivers. Truex hasn’t finished outside of the top 15 in the last five weeks, with his worst result coming in Chicago with a 13th-place run.
Right now, Truex is living under the shadow of his brother Martin Truex, Jr., and occasionally has people refer to him as “Ryan Truex, Jr.” No, seriously. That really happens.
However, this 19-year-old is moving up the NASCAR levels slowly but surely and Joe Gibbs Racing is providing him with the opportunities to make him successful. If Ryan can make a little more noise in the sport in the coming years, maybe he’ll finally get the ignorant to drop the “Jr.” from his name once and for all.
*Honorable Mention:* *Marcos Ambrose* has two consecutive ninth-place results to his credit, both of which came on oval races, earning himself a total of 10 top 10s in 30 races this year. We probably won’t see him win on an oval track before the year is over, but you need to learn to walk before you learn to crawl, and top 10s are a small success for this Australia native at this point in his career.
*Dale Earnhardt, Jr.* – Remember when Junior Nation was celebrating Earnhardt’s Chase berth and everyone was saying he was “back”?
Can you say “short-lived”?
Earnhardt has only one top-10 run in the last 9 races, with no laps led, and he is nearly a full race out of the lead (ninth in points, -43 points out) with no signs of life coming from the No. 88 camp. Thankfully, he’s got his teammate Jeff Gordon to keep him company at the bottom of the standings while they watch teammate Jimmie Johnson competing for his sixth title. No word on which of them has the duty of popping the popcorn.
*Ryan Newman* – Like Earnhardt, Newman has especially struggled since the Chase started, earning his only top-10 result in Chicago. Currently Newman is only 11th in points, 54 spots out of the lead, which is well over a full race deficit.
I think it’s safe to eliminate the No. 39 driver from championship contention, which is a shame since his owner/driver Tony Stewart started the Chase out so strong by winning the first two races – that leaves Smoke still realistically in the title hunt. In comparison, Newman might have to work hard to make sure he earns a spot on stage in Las Vegas in December, since only the top-10 drivers in points are able to give a speech at the end of the year.
Ah yes, the plot thickens!
*Honorable Mention:* *David Ragan* is still on the hot seat at Roush Fenway Racing, and isn’t doing himself any favors. While he’s finished outside the top 20 in all but the last five weeks, and even has a couple of top 10s to his credit, that won’t be enough to convince Jack Roush to keep him over Trevor Bayne, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., or any other driver with sponsorship. That’s sponsorship, by the way, that Ragan doesn’t have for 2012.
*Joey Logano* – Joe Gibbs Racing as a whole seems to be struggling at this point in the season, as neither of their two Chase cars are legitimate contenders for this championship while Logano continues to struggle to even earn top 10s. In fact, he hasn’t had one of those since the August race at Watkins Glen, with the highest finish he’s had since being a 13th-place showing at Bristol.
Logano’s 23rd-place spot in points is embarrassing for the organization who has a total of five wins between their two other drivers this season and is known as one of the powerhouses of the sport. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m not sure how much longer JGR and Home Depot will put up with mediocrity while Jimmie Johnson is up front and winning races with rival Lowe’s on board.
The strange thing is that Logano has had bright spots in his career where it looked like he might have hit a sweet spot, but he always slips back into obscurity within a few weeks. I’ve heard all of the excuses for the 21-year-old driver and frankly they just don’t hold up anymore. Whether he was moved up to Cup too soon isn’t a reasonable debate anymore, because he’s had more than enough time to improve, which he hasn’t done.
I’m sorry to say that it seems a driver this young already seems washed up, but maybe moving to a lower series like Nationwide would do Logano some good.
*Jeff Gordon* – For many, Gordon was considered to be teammate Johnson’s biggest threat for the title, and for the longest time that argument held up. Gordon had appeared to return to his 2007 form where he won six races, finished second in points, and was competitive all season long. With his performance leading into the Chase, including a record breaking 85th career win occurring at Atlanta Motor Speedway, it was looking like Gordon was potentially headed down his path to a fifth title.
Instead, a blown engine in Kansas last weekend was a nail in the coffin for Gordon, who had already slipped dangerously close to the bottom of the Chase barrel. Heading into Kansas, Gordon was only 19 points out of the lead in the ninth spot in the standings, although he was both realistically and mathematically still well within sight of the leaders.
Unfortunately for Gordon, a 34th-place finish after smoke billowed from his engine effectively killed any chances he had of unseating Johnson from his throne as he is now 10th in points, 47 spots out of the lead. Even if he wins this weekend, it won’t be enough to move the veteran more than a few spots in the standings, especially if Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, and Johnson have strong runs (they will). While a win isn’t out of the question, he’ll have to wait until 2012 for another championship.
*Honorable Mention:* *David Reutimann* finished 35th at Kansas Speedway for his fourth finish outside of the top 30 in the last seven races. How ironic that the “lucky dog” is the mascot of a car who needs it so badly.
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